This is the first in a series of Saturday stories profiling the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame's Class of 2012.
For most every change in Buffalo Sabres history – blue and gold to red and black and then back, team owners one to four, 1971 to 2012 – there have been two constants: a fan base and a voice.
The two share a special connection that has left the man behind "La La La LaFontaine" and "May day" reflective.
"I sometimes wonder how I got cast in this position," said Rick Jeanneret. "I feel specially honored."
The longest-tenured broadcaster in the NHL has been inducted into the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame and Hockey Hall of Fame, among numerous other honors, but he said his induction into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame this year is special for one reason.
"This is more an award from the community," Jeanneret said. "I've had such a great association with the fans over the years. Getting into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame is almost like being elected by the fans."
And it's the connection with the community that makes him feel so fortunate. After all, he was just a young disc jockey who wasn't involved in sports at all. But while Jeanneret was attending a Junior A Niagara Falls Flyers game, the regular announcer got sick and fate intervened. Jeanneret filled in. He was good.
Jeanneret became the Flyers' color analyst for one year and took over play-by-play the next season. Five years later, he started calling the action for the Cincinnati Swords, the Sabres' minor league affiliate. That lasted a year — the Sabres' first year of existence.
In their second, they called up a hot young prospect: Jeanneret. He called the first game of the season at Memorial Auditorium.
"People were absolutely gaga in those days to just have a National Hockey League team," Jeanneret said. "I don't think there was any association in the early days with winning and losing. I really don't. People were just so happy to be entertained."
Things changed. The Sabres went to the Stanley Cup final in 1975 and winning became a big deal. A whole lot changed, actually, but Jeanneret never did. His youthful exuberance wowed — and continues to wow — his audience.
That audience missed his energy for 25 games last year, which Jeanneret chose to sit out.
He hated it. Jeanneret is returning to a full schedule this season.
"The travel thing has bothered me the last couple of years and it still does, but once I get to the arena and sit down I'm very comfortable," Jeanneret said. "I sit there and take a look at everything and say: ‘OK, let's have some fun.'"
Besides the fans, he can think of one thing that's kept him around for 41 years.
"Just the love of the game. I still love the game."
With Jeanneret's storied history and memorable calls, fans dread the day he turns off his microphone.
"Truly, when I say I'm taking it a year at a time, I really am taking it a year at a time," he said. "Nor do I know beyond this year that I'd want to cover the full schedule again. But I thought this year, I'll take another kick at the can.
"And on top of that, I think this is going to be a pretty good hockey team."
In May 2011, Jeanneret, who never graduated from high school, received an honorary doctorate from Canisius College. On his 70th birthday, Jeanneret received a card from his grandkids that said "To: Dr. Papa." It's a term of endearment that has stuck around his house.
Jeanneret lives in Niagara Falls, Ont., with his wife, Sandra, and he grew up in St. Catharines.
"Overall, I'm very happy with what I've accomplished in my 40-odd years in Buffalo," he said. "I hope I'll always be remembered as a part of the Buffalo Sabres and the community as they were growing up.
"People counted on turning on the radio or TV and hearing RJ call the hockey game. It was a part of their household activity and as a result I got to be part of their household. That's the best acknowledgement I can think of. Even more than the halls of fame."
The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame's 22nd annual induction dinner will be held Oct. 17 at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom. The cost is $85 per person or $750 for a table of 10. Call Tina Pastwick at 693-3807 or visit www.gbshof.com.